European Obstacles to the Full Independence of Kosovo

This snapshot aims to highlight major difficulties of Kosovo's official recognition in Europe.

By Riccardo Cattaneo
Contributing Writer
23 October 2018

Kosovo represents the last chapter of the crumbling of the former Yugoslavia. Although it declared independence in 2008 and has been subsequently recognized by 115 UN member States, several notable holdouts remain. Five EU members – Greece, Slovakia, Romania, Cyprus, and Spain – have all declined to recognize Kosovo’s independence, as have as Serbia, Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Following NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244, which established an international protectorate to oversee the region. The principal aim of this framework was twofold. First, it affirmed the importance of reaching a political agreement that would  peacefully determine the future of the region. Second, it sought to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which peacefully split into Serbia and Montenegro in 2006). The same resolution established the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which was tasked with helping to “ensure conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants of Kosovo and advance regional stability in the Western Balkans”.

Serbia considers Kosovo's declaration of independence illegitimate, and any recognition on its part would be tantamount to an acceptance and formalization of Serb  territorial loss. Thus, it appealed to the International Court of Justice. In a 2010 advisory opinion, the Court declined to take a political position on the matter. It concluded that the principle of territorial integrity does not prohibit unilateral declarations of independence, but simultaneously does not allow for the right to secession. The Court additionally ruled that the declaration did not technically violate international law because the body that declared it was operating outside of the UN-mandated legal framework established under Resolution 1244. Those who had adopted it, though members of the Assembly of Kosovo (the official parliamentary institution created under the Resolution 1244 ), were  operating instead as a parallel body, declaring themselves as “representatives of the people of Kosovo”. Therefore, they were bound neither to UN resolution 1244 nor to UNMIK, effectively prohibiting Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

The European Union has taken several steps to promote Kosovo’s independence. Despite a  lack of internal agreement, it established the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) after Kosovo declared its independence. This undertaking was a de facto promotion of Kosovo’s state-building: establishing political, judiciary, security and administrative institutions within the country. EULEX faced strong opposition from both Serbia and Russia, both of which considered the mission a vehicle for the West to strengthen its influence in the region via the establishment of a fully self-sufficient and independent State in Kosovo. Furthermore, the European Union leveraged Serbia and Kosovo’s desire to become  EU members as a way to reach the Brussels Agreement of 2013.

The European Union, as a whole, does not have the legal authority to recognize states; its members do so individually. EULEX is part of the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union (CFSP), an agreement which requires unanimity among member states in order to operate. In some cases, like EULEX, this problem can be overcome by exempting states that are in disagreement with the measures adopted. For example, Spain does not participate in EULEX, but this has not prevented the European Union from setting up the mission. While CFSP has struggled to work, the European Parliament moved to adopt a resolution to coax  the five member states that have not recognized Kosovo to do so. Their reasons for not recognizing an independent Kosovo are diverse.

Cyprus has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence because, in its view,  it represents a violation of a state’s territorial integrity. Its reluctance is rooted in Northern Cyprus’ 1974 independence proclamation, the end result being  a Turkish occupation that continues to this day. Slovakia has never taken a formal position on the issue, simply stating that it is in favor of resolving the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia through an agreement between the parties. Despite the signing of the Brussels Agreement of 2013, the Slovak Government has not formalized any steps toward recognition. Greece, which also maintains interests  in the region, ascribes greater importance to its relations with other neighbors, such as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), though long-standing tensions exist between the two countries. Romania has declined to recognize Kosovo in order to safeguard its steady relations with Serbia. The Romanian government appeared to be close to recognition following the Brussels Agreement. However, scandals and popular unrest led to the elections of technocratic governments that were not interested in becoming involved with such foreign policy decisions.

Finally, Spain is the most prominent  European Union member that does not recognize Kosovo. To do so could potentially cause reverberations at home, namely providing  fodder for the Catalan independence movement. The destabilizing effects stemming from the Catalan push for an autonomous region has  effectively eliminated any chance that the Spanish government, despite being under socialist control, would change its position on the Kosovo question. Although both Catalonia and Kosovo have linguistic minorities and declared independence without the recognition of central authorities, the motivating factors behind each are vastly different. Catalan independence is not the result of oppression or  ethnic cleansing, but is rooted in the Spanish economic crisis and the absence of adequate policies from Madrid. Nevertheless, the Catalan push for independence is a likely bulwark for Spain’s reluctance to recognize an independent Kosovo.

These silent tensions affect the Neighbourhood Policy, an effort  in the Balkan Peninsula to foster enlargement of the region’s European institutions. However, an agreement built to resolve  territorial disputes in the region is a conditio sine qua non for the Neighbourhood Policy to be fully implemented. Meanwhile, EULEX and UNMIK will keep working toward building a self-sufficient government, robust institutions, and territorial control. Serbian authorities had  been in control of northern Kosovo (largely populated by Serbs) until the Brussels Agreement was adopted. Though the Serbs no longer maintain control, they have no intention of recognizing Kosovo’s independence and certainly do not want to see the  remaining holdout states and international organisations do so.

Concurrently, the secessionist region has no intention of renouncing its hard-fought  independence. Kosovo will have to be a party to the complex agreement if it hopes to achieve its goal of being fully independent and a member of the European Union. Kosovo has already secured vast international recognition and support; it must continue to assertively follow its current path. In the long term, there is promise that Kosovo will be fully recognized by the international community and, perhaps, along with Serbia, become a member of the European Union.

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Riccardo Cattaneo is completing his master’s degree in International Relations at the University of Milan. After a year of study in Madrid, he worked as an intern at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Permanent Representation of Italy to the European Union.

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